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Derby day in Anchorage means fancy hats, mint juleps and a stick-horse race in the alley

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  • Updated: May 6
  • Published May 6

Laura Sanfacon bought her frilly, pink fascinator five years ago at Harrods, the famous luxury store in London. She wore the fancy headpiece to the 2012 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and wore it again Saturday for a derby party at Simon & Seafort's.

Hilda Bauer spent $9.05 at the Dollar Store for a straw hat, some fake flowers, a bit of ribbon and a little nest with a tiny yellow bird. About an hour later, she wore her do-it-yourself hat to a derby party at Darwin's Theory.

What a difference four blocks makes.

Far from Louisville, where a field of 20 Kentucky Derby horses made the 143rd annual run for the roses, two derby parties drew sizeable crowds to downtown Anchorage.

At Simon's, a popular fine-dining establishment, about 200 people gathered for a party populated by women dressed in showy hats, brightly colored summer dresses and high heels and men dressed in bow ties, pastels and the occasional seersucker suit.

They walked across a lobby floor covered with fake rose petals, and many of them paused to pose for photos in front of a backdrop covered with the Kentucky Derby logo.

Inside the restaurant, they drank mint juleps and "Secretariat's Mimosas" and ordered from a menu that included Kentucky hot browns ($13.95) and shrimp and grits ($12.95).

At Darwin's, a popular dive bar, about 50 people crowded in for a party populated by regulars. Most of the women wore hats, a few wore cocktail dresses, and the men dazzled in denim and T-shirts. They drank mint juleps and ate popcorn (always free).

The Simon's party may have looked and felt more like a northerner's idea of southern living, but the Darwin's party is the one that comes with tradition.

The Darwin's event dates back at least 30 years, though no one's quite sure exactly when it began.

It was the brainchild of Barbara Jean Alberg, a longtime bartender who died at age 65 in June 2015.

Alberg was sort of the cruise director at Darwin's — the creator of beloved traditions like homemade burritos on NFL Sundays, the annual Easter egg decorating contest, the now-defunct Darwin's Sled Chickens and the annual Kentucky Derby party.

Sitting atop one of the bar's coveted window tables Saturday was an array of colorful, wide-brimmed hats that had belonged to Alberg, who always brought spares just in case someone needed one.

Cheryl McKay holds a one-eyed stick horse at Darwin’s Theory. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
Cheryl McKay holds a one-eyed stick horse at Darwin’s Theory. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

"Barbara Jean was such an institution here," said Cheryl McKay, decked out in a black-and-white party dress. "We want to honor her traditions."

The Darwin's Derby party got the ultimate seal of approval in 2009, when the Commonwealth of Kentucky made bar owner Darwin Biwer a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the state.

Saturday marked the third annual Derby party at Simon's, where the mounted caribou head that hangs in the entryway was draped with a garland of artificial red roses.

The party might be the dressiest event in town that doesn't involve an expensive ticket or a wedding, and even weddings here don't always clean up this nicely.

The place buzzed with conversation and laughter. The atmosphere was fun and loose as people went back and forth between the bar and the restaurant.

Simon's general manager Bridget Tatalias said when the idea for a Derby party first came up, no one knew what to expect.

"We were kinda scratching our heads — a Derby party? In Anchorage? Will it be a thing?" she said. "It exceeded our expectations. People love a reason to get dressed up and mingle and have fun."

Garlands of artificial roses adorn a caribou head at Simon’s. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
Garlands of artificial roses adorn a caribou head at Simon’s. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

What used to be one of Simon's slowest Saturday lunches is now its busiest, manager Chris Hockett said.

Take away Derby day and the restaurant typically serves 20 to 30 mint juleps a year, he said. Saturday afternoon sales were expected to hit somewhere between 300 to 400.

At Darwin's, meanwhile, the first Saturday in May is the only day of the year you can get a drink with mint in it.

And because you can't have mint juleps and big hats without also having horses, both Derby parties obliged.

In the parking lot next to Simon's stood two horses from the Rockin' B Riding Club. Scores of party-goers, especially fabulously dressed women, posed for photos with the animals.

In a front-room corner at Darwin's stood a herd of stick horses. They were there for the race-after-the-race — the annual human-powered race in the alley next to Darwin's.

A stick horse ponies up to the bar at Darwin’s Theory’s. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
A stick horse ponies up to the bar at Darwin’s Theory’s. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Minutes after Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby, eight people, stick horses between their legs, lined up across the street from the Darwin's alley. Shippee waited for traffic to clear on G Street before yelling "Go!"

First place went to Cody Hollinger and last place went to Rory Spurlock, who ran to F Street when everyone else dashed to H Street.

"I've got a spirited horse," Spurlock said. "He went to the wrong damn place."

Teri Penn, left, and Susan Musante, right, form a finish-line arch for Rory Spurlock, the last-place finisher in the Darwin’s Theory annual stick horse race. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
Teri Penn, left, and Susan Musante, right, form a finish-line arch for Rory Spurlock, the last-place finisher in the Darwin’s Theory annual stick horse race. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

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